2005 National Championships of Great Britain - Test Piece Review - Eden


Iwan Fox looks at Eden - a piece that is as significant as Contest Music and Cloudcatcher Fells and a new dimension in the art of writing a test piece for brass band.

John PickardThere is little doubt that ‘Eden' will become a landmark composition for the brass band movement. It is a work of immense musical intellect and originality, written with a breadth of scope that stretches far beyond what we have come to expect even of our most talented composers for brass in the last twenty-five years.

John Pickard has taken the art of brass band test piece composition not to a new, higher level, but to a totally new and exciting dimension. 'Eden' should be seen in the same light as ‘Contest Music' or ‘Cloudcatcher Fells' as a definitive work. 

The composition has an umbilical link to the composers other output – most notably his huge ‘Gaia Symphony' for brass band. ‘Eden' develops the composer's personal thoughts and a belief about mans relationship to nature and creation. In ‘Gaia' he was drawn to the elemental forces of water, fire and stone and here he is drawn to Man's relationship with his creator and his ultimate nihilistic tendencies to reject it in favour of earthly pleasures.

‘Eden' is prefaced by the final lines of John Milton's ‘Paradise Lost'.

"…The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and providence their guide:
They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way."

God has created paradise itself, yet allows Man the innate ability of conscious choice to how he uses it. The result through rejection of Gods instruction is the acceptance of evil, which will eventually and irrevocably lead to his ultimate destruction. 

The work itself is broken into three distinctive sections, and although two of them have a direct link to the subject matter of ‘Paradise Lost' it is not a musical interpretation of the poem.  The final section deals with restoration and optimism, of rebirth and recreation through the composer's belief that even out of despair and near destruction a new rebirth of hope can begin.

The work has no direct religious connotations either, although it would be easy to compare the beautiful final section to Eric Ball's ‘Resurgum'. Milton was a Puritan, with very Puritan views, and although it is not clear whether the composers shares all his views, ‘Eden' like ‘Paradise Lost' is a very persuasive and intelligent metaphor for the modern way of life and how we live it.  

The opening

The opening is a recreation of idyll that is Eden itself. A short introduction opens with the first inklings of the thematic material that is used later on, and we are introduced to the first major character of Milton's poem – Adam. Here the euphonium leads with a finely structured quasi cadenza, full of warmth and especially rubato. It is man speaking ‘quasi recitativo' and of meeting his partner, Eve, who is brought to life directly from him. Gently the music unfolds with an almost dream like quality.

The introduction of evil in the form of the snake in the Tree of Knowledge (a wicked, devilishly difficult trombone part) upsets the equilibrium.  Here Pickard brilliantly describes the hesitancy of Eve as she approaches the snake not once, not twice, but three times before she makes her fateful decision.

This is achieved by a splendid full band accelerando/pause/rallentando on chromatic scales. First Eve moves towards the tree and then recoils. The snake implores (not quite, ‘Look into my eyes, not around my eyes, right into my eyes – your under' type of thing – but you get the picture), and Adam tries vainly to stop her, but she returns a second time. Again she recoils, before she is inexorably drawn back a third time through the snakes persuasive lyricism and plucks the fruit from the tree. 

The moment of release is sounded by a whip crack – the signal that the moment when the stalk of the apple is snapped from the tree – all hell breaks loose.

Hell breaks loose

And what hell it is.

Man's expulsion is swift and terrible. The snake (Milton used the snake as a rather sympathetic description of Lucifer himself), overjoyed, celebrates with a vainglorious display of arrogant brilliance at his triumph. The trombone is marked ‘theatrical' and ‘ferocius' and it will take a player with real devilment in his soul to make this episode come off. It is a tour de force of over acting and the trombone must do it all without ever quite losing control.

With Man's fate sealed, Milton describes the descent into decadence and exploitation: This is the second section of the work.

"…Ransacked the center and with impious hands
Rifled the bowels of their other earth
For treasurers better hid. Soon had his crew
Opened into the hill a spacious wound
And digged out ribs of gold."

This is quite audaciously brought to life by Pickard with extreme use of technique and an amazing amount of detail. This really if Hell on Earth. Much has been made of the use of irrational time signatures throughout these sections, yet in retrospect they made rational sense. It is the picture of mans rapacious greed and insatiable manic exploitation that the composer so brilliantly evokes here from the digging into the bowels of the earth for gold and coal to the personal abuse of body and soul. The irrational behaviour of the musical architecture is secondary to the picture it creates – Heronimous Bosch on a particularly bad acid trip.

It s riveting writing with echoes of mining and iron working (the use of an anvil and chains) and the mechanical autonomy of the production line (the cow bell, bass drum and running chromatic semi quavers).   It is nerve jangling stuff.

The headlong descent continues at a frantic pace. The trombone has a quite stupendous bit of work to do in a jazz orientated fashion (the section evokes the music of Bernstein's dance sequences from West Side Story) as the Devil displays all his terrible virtues. The ensemble work is immense and technically perhaps the most challenging yet written for band.

Finally, Man can exploit creation no more and exhausted he tries vainly three times to create further havoc. Memories of ‘Blitz' and the ultimate Armageddon will flood back at times with the composers clever use of a manic and furious timpani which leads irregular shock notes from the rest of the band. Three times it starts and fails, before the final coup de grace and the mammoth realization of ultimate destruction hits home with a huge ensemble climax that evokes the splendid film music of ‘Cape Fear'.

Rebirth and restoration

Now comes the lament and the composers own search for hope, which he found at the Eden project in Cornwall. Here rebirth and recreation occur on the site of former exploitation and destruction and the metaphor, like that of ‘Paradise Lost' itself was not lost on Pickard. This final section contains glorious tonal writing that not even Eric Ball could better.

After a series of small almost religious pleadings from various solo lines, hope eternal is revealed. Here the euphoniums lead the line marked ‘cantabile' and the sense of resolve is palpable.  As each step is taken back towards ‘Paradise' the peace and tranquility returns, the beauty is revealed once more and the music soars. A magnificent ending – balanced and not overblown closes a quite stunning work. 

For this reviewer, ‘Eden' is a work of immense significance for the banding movement. It will not universally popular for sure and will take those who have not heard Pickard's works before, some time to digest and understand. It is worth the patience.

However it is a work that can only be mastered (and only just one feels) by the very best bands here on the day. If there are more than a handful of bands who will do it justice them we have been fortunate indeed. Too many will not come close to playing it and that is a great pity. The Nationals needs composers of Pickard's gifts and foresight, but many will feel that it must also give a balanced and chance to all the competitors. ‘Eden' will not just sort out the men from the boys, it will sort out the men from the supermen.

Here is a truly original voice and one that allows the brass band to be used as a forthright musical tool and not a bland copy of a brass ensemble. ‘Eden' is not an orchestral inspired work, but a work with orchestral inspirations for the brass band. It should be welcomed with open hearts and minds.

Iwan Fox.


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